‘My little finger just won’t work on its own’; how often have I heard this phrase from disgruntled piano students? Too often is the answer. Pupils invariably spend so much time focusing on and looking at the music on the desk, that they forget all about posture and technique.
One of the major technical obstacles when developing a piano technique is allowing all fingers to work equally and properly from the knuckles. This takes time, a lot of energy and practice in the right direction (as my professor used to say!). Many think scales will adequately help fingers to work equally but this is usually not to the case. Scales do help finger independence but they don’t help all fingers – the poor old fourth and fifth fingers are normally left to limp along on their own.
The fourth and fifth fingers are always the weakest in both hands but especially in the left hand. If they don’t play alone i.e. independently of the other three (or thumb and two fingers) then playing becomes uneven and haphazard to say the least. Rapid passage work can become unrhythmical. Tone production suffers too.
So what can be done to aid this problem? Firstly, arms and wrists need to be very flexible and ‘free’. This can take months of practice – many students find tension really hinders their playing, sometimes leading to pain or worse, repetitive strain injury. Tension is necessary in order to play at all, but it’s the wong kind of tension that stops fingers and wrists from working properly. It can take lots of time correcting tension problems. However, by working on fingers individually whilst ‘freeing’ the wrist simultaneously, the weaker fingers begin to work. It does take time but once understood, pupils are so pleased to feel more in control when executing fast passage work particularly.
If you want to start improving the technique of your fourth and fifth fingers, then begin by allowing your whole arm to become a dead weight, hanging totally free by your side. Once it feels totally relaxed you will know how it needs to feel when you play. When working on strengthening fingers, try to use a rotating wrist motion every time you play a note with a different finger, so in effect, you are disengaging (or freeing) your wrist so as to stop any tension which may result when playing from one finger to another. Problems begin when students keep stiffness or continue to be tense when playing from one finger (or note) to the next without letting go of the tension in between. Tension is only required at the moment of impact. Try this at very slow speeds especially when working at the fourth and fifth fingers.
Allow the fingers to play on their ‘tips’ which generally produces better results than flat fingers (although many prefer to play the latter way) and make sure you go down to the bottom of the key bed so as to produce a rich full sound. In a sense, you are using arm weight to play each finger via a freely rotating wrist. It takes a while to get used to this motion but once each finger has learnt to play from the knuckles on its own, using the weight of the entire arm behind it, but without any tension in the wrists, then your fingers will begin to gather some strength.
Tone production and finger strength are very much linked and it’s a good idea to work at this with very simple studies – Czerny’s Exercises Op. 101 or perhaps The School of Velocity Op. 299 are both excellent (you could actually use any piece which features scalic passage work). These are easy enough not to disturb concentration allowing pupils to focus purely on the technical task in hand – it’s also much more effective if studies are learnt from memory, so students are free to observe their physical movements. The wrist really needs to be totally flexible at all times as do other parts of the body especially arms and shoulders (shoulders are usually raised when they are tense).
Twenty to thirty minutes of concentrated slow practice per day should be all that is needed on studies in order to start improving finger strength and create a relaxed hand and wrist action. It’s important to emphasize that any technical improvement takes time and patience. Playing in a different way will feel completely alien at first but it will be worth it in the end!
Image: So You Want To Play The Piano? published by Alfred Music